My Rambling Thoughts On Free Will, Determinism, and Making Choices

I had a nice discussion on metaphysical free will, determinism, and making choices that matter. What follows are my rambling thoughts because it was a discussion, and I was finding different ways to communicate. I just don't want to clear up the repetition. It begins with this quote which I dispute:
My message to you is this: pretend that you have free will. It’s essential that you behave as if your decisions matter, even though you know they don’t. The reality isn’t important: what’s important is your belief, and believing the lie is the only way to avoid a waking coma. Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has.
― Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others
Since we’re alive we must make choices, even if they are determined ones. So why not make those choices good ones, even though those choices are determined ones? At the time we choose we don’t know which ones are determined to be. So the fact that they are determined doesn’t affect which choices we make. Live then, as if it’s all up to us, knowing it’s not up to us. It doesn’t change how we should live by knowing that our choices are determined.

In other words, an action is not yet determined until we choose to do it. We must choose to act throughout our days. Therefore, we are participants in which actions take place. I don’t know in advance which actions I will choose throughout my days. So I am learning as I choose which actions were determined beforehand for me to make. It’s a discovery we make by making our choices.

I can drink my coffee in the morning, wondering what will happen and how I will choose each day. I know this daily process repeats itself, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s all been determined by the interaction of physics in the world, and in my brain.

I can decide in advance to do something. That is not pretending anything. As a part of this whole process I am involved. Right now I could do a number of bizarre actions, and it really is me doing them, if I mean the sum total of the determinative causes upon me. So I do have a role to play. I am making these choices, the person who exists as a determined set of physical forces acting within and upon me.

Is this compatibilism? Am I free and determined? No, I can’t find room for free will if it is completely determined. Period.

At the time of my decisions I am not pretending I have free will. I am experiencing it. I experience what it’s like to choose, every day, week, month, year of my life. I get rewarded and punished for my choices too. I can say I deserved my rewards and punishments. Who else deserves them? While my life may be nothing more than unwittingly following a script in a play to a T, by acting and speaking as dictated by unknown forces, I get to watch the play unfold. It’s as it I am also in the theatre watching the play, personally experiencing the joy and the suffering of the twists and turns of life.

Since I can suffer from my choices I choose to avoid suffering, and surprisingly I can avoid it. If I want happiness in my life, surprisingly I can choose paths that bring it. Who is making these choices? The physics of me. But this is me! Can I make a better world for me and others? I can. I can also make better choices than in the past, based on learning from the past. While I am determined to do what I do, that fact makes no difference to the life that I choose. If I am held accountable in society for my choices, then I want to make good ones, and I can, and I do, even though my choices are determined.

Someone might still object by saying, “But what am I doing when I lead my life as though there is free will, when I am convinced there is no free will?”

You are acting in a play. You are following the lines in a script. You don’t know what you’re supposed to do until you do it. But you must act in the play if you wish to stay alive. You are still lucky to be alive, to experience consciousness.

You have been chosen to star in this play. Do your best since you will be held accountable by your family and friends and society if you do them harm.

Be actively engaged in doing no harm, since it strangely works out that if you do this, you will do no harm. Purpose to be useful, and kind, and grateful. If you do, then it strangely works out that you will exhibit these virtues. It doesn’t matter if you were determined to be who you are, and do what you do, since you could choose right now to do harm.

Determinism does not matter. You could actually do harm right now if you decided to do so. Your actions were determined of course. Just don’t cause harm and make sure you were not determined to do something different. I can throw a rock through a neighbor’s front window. Or refrain. It’s determined what I will do. But as I ponder this choice, I don’t know what I have been determined to do. I can decide to do it, or not. I can suffer the consequences, or not. So not knowing what I will do, but knowing my decision to throw the rock, or not, is determined, shouldn’t I decide to do the right thing, despite that what I do is determined?

That’s the difference. By your choices you are making sure you were not determined to be a scalawag, a scoundrel, or a scammer. Since you don’t know your determined path, choose to do no harm, since you could choose to do harm if you wanted. The reason you could choose a different path is because you don’t know your determined path. By “different” I mean a different path than the one your life has led you so far.

Are you pretending anything? When you make a decision are you really pretending it matters when it really doesn’t? Why? What we do has consequences. Are you pretending you have free will? Why? You're simply making good choices that determine in advance that you weren't determined to be a liar and a thief. Make good choices and oddly, bizarrely, you do just that. Is it all determined? So what if it is? You don't know what your determined path is. So choose to be good not bad.

I think you should make decisions based on kindness, not hate, because kindness is good and hate is bad, and let determinism go screw itself, because it’s irrelevant to what choices we should make.

Let’s put it this way. The fact that none of our choices come by way of free will is irrelevant when deciding what choices to make, absolutely so! It offers us no guidance at all. But we must choose. When we choose to do good we help people. So let’s help people. We don't know if we were determined to do anything else.


John W. Loftus is a philosopher and counter-apologist credited with 12 critically acclaimed books, including The Case against Miracles, God and Horrendous Suffering, and Varieties of Jesus Mythicism. Please support DC by sharing our posts, or by subscribing, donating, or buying our books at Amazon. As an Amazon Associate John earns a small amount of money from any purchases made there. Buying anything through them helps fund the work here, and is greatly appreciated!